Inside the British Motorcycle Industry: Knox

Author: Jim Lindsay Posted: 01 Jun 2016

Knox founder and former racer Geoff Travell photographed at the factory with some of the clothing and protective gear that his company makes.

In the fourth of our series looking behind the scenes in the British motorcycle industry, Bike Social visit the Lake District base of Knox. We’re here to talk protection, layers and innovation with the father and son team of Geoff and Aaron Travell who run the company.

“Innovation is at the heart of our business,” says Geoff. Having established themselves as the leading manufacturer of body armour and with a good range of protective gloves, Knox are concentrating on technical layering in motorcycle clothing.

Walkers have known the secret for years. For maximum comfort and/or warmth, you add or remove layers depending on the conditions. Knox start with a base layer which whips moisture away and keeps you cool in hot condition but also has the ability to retain body heat in cold weather. Next they add a layer of protection. This is neat. It’s a vest containing back, shoulder arm and, on some models, chest protection. This is more comfortable than a bulky jacket containing built-in armour. Everything is held more securely in place and it is easier pit on and remove.

When it gets colder, you add  mid-layers of varying weight, tops, leggings, balaclavas, undergloves and even socks.

Finishing it off is light, waterproof jacket with zips along the sides and the arms which allows the wearer to expand the fit of the garment to accommodate the additional layers.

It’s a simple idea and it works. Thrashing my KTM RC8R back from Knox’s Cockermouth base, through the Lake District and the Yorkshire Dales on one of the first properly warm days of the year, I opted for full protection and the minimum amount of layering to keep me cool and comfortable for the 260 mile trip.

Not just that, I had seen some of the stuff I was wearing being created by a team of expert pattern cutters and seamstresses in the Knox factory that morning. While I was getting to leave, a local guy who raced vintage motocross on a BSA single turned up to buy a set of body armour that had been made just a few metres from the reception area where he and I were talking.

The Knox factory ion Cockermouth where many of the company’s products are manufactured by the local workforce.

The factory itself is compact. Much thought has gone into the layout so that the production team can work closely together. Using lean manufacturing techniques ( the team produce a whole range of garments in small batches. They are in close communication throughout the making. Any problems with a batch can be quickly spotted and fixed. If problem is not fixable, only a small amount of garments have to be scrapped.

For the women who staff the factory, Knox provides local employment using skills that they had thought were no longer in demand, thanks mostly to foreign competition. That in itself is inspiring to see. Knox have invested heavily. The machinery is not cheap. One device which uses four needles to stitch panels together with flat seams costs £9,000, for example. The dyes, cutters, ovens and presses used to form the body armour are even more costly.

Part of the manufacturing area inside the factory. Some of the sewing machines cost upwards of £9000.

Not everything that Knox makes is produced in the UK. Some of their range is manufactured in Asia. In certain areas, they could not compete on price with their rivals if they insisted on making everything in Britain. However, as Managing Director Geoff Travell points out, it’s one thing simply to use a factory in China to make copies of products with your logo on them and quite another to maintain control of the whole process from start to finish.

Every Knox product is designed and prototyped in the UK. They have a design studio in London to help with this process. This ensures that sizing, fit and quality are all thoroughly worked out before the overseas manufacturing plant is presented with final samples and patterns.

Evelyn cuts out garment sections using a band knife. It’s lethally sharp which is why she is wearing a chain mail glove.

For as long as I can remember, I have worn a back protector whenever I ride At a track day a few years ago, when enthusiasm exceeded ability, I stacked my Fireblade at around 100 mph and slid across a raised kerb on my back. I was bruised and stiff the next day but my back protector prevented serious injury and heavily armoured gloves kept my hands safe. Both gloves and back protector were made by Knox. I was similarly grateful in 2014 when I got knocked off my Ducati on a roundabout. I broke my collarbone but the back protector and gloves did their job, again. The gloves were not too badly damaged, just the boa cable needed fixing which Knox did for £29, including postage. Cheaper than a new pair by a long way.

Knox founder Geoff Travell in his racing days.Protection was where the company started. In 1981 Geoff Travell, an upholsterer by trade and a motorcycle racer, was lying in hospital with broken bones and missing skin after a big accident at Snetterton’s notorious Bomb Hole corner. He started thinking about adding protection to the basic clothing that racers wore. He had moulds taken of various parts of his body and produced his first set of body armour. Back racing again, he started making sets for other racers. Demand grew. He did a deal with a couple of leather suit manufacturers to supply body armour under the brand name Protek. (I still have a set of Swift leathers from 1984 with Protek inserts). In 1988 they produced the Pro-Tek Elite suit featuring the first jacket to have built-in protectors for the elbows, shoulders and back.

It was tough at first. “I was trying to sell something that nobody had asked for,” said Geoff. “Some leather manufacturers just laughed at me.” He persisted and 35 years later the company is thriving making top quality British designed gear.

Some famous names build Knox armour into their clothing – Ixon,  RS Taichi, Racer Spyke, Held, Draggin Jeans and more.

The lifeblood of the company is passion and innovation, which I found in huge quantities during my visit. I set out for home feeling excited and inspired by what I had seen. Long live British invention and manufacture.

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Knox founder Geoff Travell with his son Aaron who is an integral part of the family business.

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